Jesse Woodson James

American outlaw Jesse Woodson James (1847-1882) was a colorful bandit whose escapades made him a legendary figure of the Wild West.

Jesse James was born near Kearney, Mo., on Sept. 5, 1847, the son of a Baptist minister. Little is known about Jesse's childhood except that his father left the family in 1850 to minister to the gold prospectors in California and died soon after his arrival there. The three James children grew up on a Missouri farm with a stepfather.

As slave owners with origins in Kentucky, James's entire family were Southern sympathizers. So, during the Civil War, he joined the Confederate guerrilla band known as Quantrill's Raiders in 1863 or 1864. Returning to Missouri in 1865, Jesse and his brother Frank found that, although the Civil War was officially over, Missourians were still belligerent. In 1866 the James brothers joined forces with the Younger brothers to form an outlaw band.

For 16 years Jesse James and his gang robbed trains and banks in Missouri, Kentucky, and the midwestern states. Killings accompanied these activities, and James was hunted by the law. Of necessity, he was always on the run. His daring exploits during these years captured the imagination of the public, and all sorts of legends sprung up about him.

On April 23, 1874, occurred the one documented event in James's life: he married Zerelda, or Zee, Mimms near Kearney, Mo. In time they had two children.

The most famous bank robbery attempted by the James-Younger band was at the First National Bank of Northfield, Minn., on Sept. 7, 1876. The bank clerk, who refused to open the safe, was savagely murdered; then the gang tried to escape. In the shoot-out that followed, two of the band were killed. A posse captured the three Younger brothers. Jesse and Frank James, both wounded, escaped. After they recovered, they continued robbing and killing sporadically.

Finally the governor of Missouri offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the James brothers. At this time Jesse was living with his family in St. Joseph, Mo., under the name of Thomas Howard. Robert and Charles Ford, youthful recruits in the outlaw band, were staying for a few days with the James family. Robert had been in contact with authorities about the reward for several weeks. On April 3, 1882, when Jesse put his guns down to climb on a chair to straighten a picture, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head and killed him. Soon after, Frank James turned himself in.

Further Reading on Jesse Woodson James

A conscientious effort to ferret out the facts on James is William A. Settle, Jr., Jesse James Was His Name; or, Fact and Fiction concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri (1966). It is well researched and interestingly written. Another good treatment, fairly accurate and thorough but not dealing with the legends, is Carl W. Breihan, The Complete and Authentic Life of Jesse James (1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Brant, Marley, Outlaws: the illustrated history of the James-Younger gang, Washington, DC: Elliott & Clark Pub., 1996.

Breihan, Carl W., The escapades of Frank and Jesse James, New York: F. Fell Publishers, 1974.

Breihan, Carl W., The man who shot Jesse James, South Brunswick N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1979.

Breihan, Carl W., Saga of Jesse James, Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1991.

Dyer, Robert, Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

James, Stella F. (Stella Frances), In the shadow of Jesse James, Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Revolver Press, 1990, 1989.

Love, Robertus, The rise and fall of Jesse James, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Newmans, Evans, The true story of the notorious Jesse James, Hicksville, N.Y.: Exposition Press, 1976.